When I say “I love Portugal” – and believe me I often do – what do I mean?
I certainly don’t love politics or the increasing sense of social injustice. Who does? What I love, I realise – the more I think about it – is the culture. Speaking generally, as I have to here, I love the warmth and kindness of Portuguese people, the reassuring sense of safety, and the absolute treasury of tasty treats – things said so often by so many that they are in danger of becoming clichés. Lovely, take-for-granted, all-you-can-eat clichés.
Yet, of course, no culture comes without its shadows or downsides. Beloved Portugal is no exception to that rule. The dark side too is peppered with clichés. The other side of calm, and a slower pace of life, is a lethargy that can drain the energy of the keenest newcomer. Then there’s the bureaucracy, when admin’ goes bad, striking like a ‘bacalhau’ bone in the throat that once said only good things about the good life here.
Forgive me for even speaking of these tiresome old tropes, but I do so with good reason. Please bear with me as I will try to explain why what’s supposedly ‘bad’ about Portugal could be ‘good’ about Portugal.
More than a couple of decades ago, I embarked upon a life-changing training course in my native London, a weekend event called the ‘Landmark Forum’. Among many breakthroughs and revelations that occurred to me over that fateful and ultimately fulfilling few days, albeit as a result of many breakdowns and recriminations, was an understanding of ‘upsets’.
To this day, it gives me no end of relief to understand that we humans are almost constantly upset by something or other, to be more specific – and if memory serves correctly – thwarted intentions, unexpressed communications and unfulfilled expectations. As I recall, the course’s facilitator claimed that all upsets stem from these three propositions.
Consider for a moment this unholy trinity of chaos catalysts and their prevalence if you are experiencing a great change in location and lifestyle, learning to live in a new country. To feel comfortable and in control, you want to get things done, but you might not know the right way to do them. You want to talk and explain, but you don’t speak the local language or understand the subtleties of the new culture. You think things should be a certain way, the way they were ‘at home’ (where they made sense), but they are not.
Upsets can clearly abound, especially in the early days of expatriation.
“You’re not really selling it, Carl,” you might say. And, honestly, I wouldn’t blame you. But I won’t lie to you either. Stay with me for what can make you stronger, if it doesn’t kill you, to coin a phrase.
I share this only because, and strangely so, it’s another thing I have learned to love about Portugal and hope you will too, in time.
For the foreigner, Portuguese upset soup can be a ‘prato do dia’, especially in the early days, but thankfully it comes with a healthy side of sunshine with a fragrant, freshly-chopped garnish of sympathy.
Talk to any Portuguese person, and much of what you are struggling with, they struggle with too. The difference between you and them is that they learnt to swim in these waters, and you were just thrown in. It’s really not about YOU. It’s not personal. It’s cultural.
As you thrash around ungracefully, against what can sometimes feel like a riptide of negativity, resistance and lack of cooperation, a Zen-like calm can be yours if you embrace ‘The Power of Não’ as all true Portuguese can do, with Jedi-like aplomb, a cultural thing that I suspect was honed throughout Portugal’s history with its fertile blend of ocean-going innovation and dictatorial oppression.
Where you and I, the foreigners, with our imported sense of urgency and entitlement, take a Portuguese push-back personally, we also have an opportunity to transcend and try again, later.
Remember Bobby O’Reilly? He told Good Morning Portugal! viewers recently: “You have to be patient. That’s the first thing. Patience is going to be required here. You may get annoyed, and you will get upset about things, but that’s how it is here.”
From one of the busiest expats I know, this is hard-won wisdom. No amount of money or force can change a situation that isn’t going your way, it seems. And at the risk of sounding like Yoda or Eckhart Tolle himself, to be truly happy and prosper here, you’ll need to change within, not just rearrange the external features of your life.
Some years in, I am more at peace now than I have ever been in my life. Sure, the great lifestyle afforded by Portuguese culture plays a great part in that. Yet, something more profound has been at work on me, and in me.
Portugal has worked her magic and that culture, which I love so much, that so often seems to say “no” to my egotistical and impatient desires, has schooled me. I appreciate more the value of surrender and the acceptance of what is. It’s easier to seize the day, to be grateful for what you have, when your petty concerns of how you think life should be, are gently eased from the white-knuckle grasp of your expectations.
You could be forgiven for thinking you had simply moved to another country. What you might not realise is that you have embarked on a personality retraining course. A personal development programme that has the potential to level you up, to bring out your personal best, an opportunity where you can help yourself to self-help, in abundance.
I apologise in advance if you thought you had come here for a quiet or easy life. Few find that to simply be the case. But for those who are willing to embrace the magical medicine of migration, new heights of spiritual experience await you, plateaus that can make sense of the lows that few are spared in this almost certainly unsettling and yet potentially ennobling process.
Author of global self-help smash hit, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle said in his life-changing guide: “Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.”
He also said: “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.” His words leave me wondering, if like J.K. Rowling, he was inspired by time spent in Portugal!
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have,” he tells us. “Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”
May I add that as sure as it’s best to make lemonade when your Portuguese neighbour gives you lemons; when life in Portugal says “Não!” to your intentions, expectations or communications, take a breath, take a sip of wine even … and whisper “calma” or “tranquilo” to yourself. And try again, tomorrow, where a new now hopefully awaits.
Tolle also said: “I have lived with several Zen masters – all of them cats.” As the now official owner of a Portuguese stray cat, ‘The Power of Miaow’ will no doubt follow in my Portugal-inspired non-fiction self-help series.
Book image: With apologies to Eckhart Tolle (and grateful thanks to Landmark Education)